Monday, April 28, 2014

Books are Not Dead

I was pleasantly surprised by my book signing event this past weekend at Barnes and Noble in El Paso.  Not just by the fact that I have "groupies" (thank you to the Father Yermo High School Class of 1985, my "sistas"... you all totally rock!), not just by the fact that a major book retailer agreed to host a new, unknown, indie book author, not just by the fact that I actually sold quite a few books.
What pleased and surprised me most was the fact that people--a LOT of people--were buying books.  While I saw a few customers head to the checkout line with a game or toy, the majority had books in their hands.  And, yes, that's plural, as in, more than one book.
True, a few were students clutching Sparks notes on Shakespeare and books on algebra and calculus and how to take the ACT, but many were folks buying novels.  It would appear that the panic caused a while back with the advent of e-readers has somewhat abated and that, contrary to the doomsayers, electronic reading devices have NOT sounded the death knell of printed paper books or bookstores.
What was truly heartening was the number of young people--under the age of twenty, down into single-digit ages--who were purchasing books.  Paul, who is the most excellent PR man, was directing customers at the door to my book table, luring them in with a free promo bookmark and an invitation to go talk to an actual author. The younger ones approached shyly, only speaking up when prompted by a parent, "Tell her you want to be a writer, too," but they blossomed when I asked them what they liked to write and gave them some encouragement.  I, too, was once that 10-year-old who wrote stories in secret (unless they were assigned for English class) and dreamed that maybe someday my name would be on the cover of a book that contained a story I had made up.  Now, seeing my younger self standing in front of me, wide-eyed, I wanted to be that writer that I always wanted to talk to, the one that wouldn't give me an indulgent smile and a pat on the head, but the one that would tell me, "Go for it," and give me a thumbs up.  They walked away with a huge smile, clutching their bookmark which was signed by "a real, live author", and their heads a little higher.  It was worth more to me than a book sale.
Because I'm pretty sure that those 10-year-olds weren't swiping the screen on an e-reader when the writing bug bit them. They were running their fingers over words strung together on a page and imagining their own words on a printed page, their own characters telling their own story, and picturing someone, much like themselves, many years into the future taking that book off a library or bookstore shelf, and joining them in the world they created.
E-readers may make reading more convenient; it would certainly make taking a couple dozen books on vacation a lot easier and less weighty.  But printed paper books evoke a sense of timelessness, carrying on the dreams and words of the author down through the ages. You might read Dickens and Austen or Tolkien on an e-reader and never feel the connection you get when you feel the weight of the book, smell the crisp "new book" scent or the mustiness of well-worn, yellowed pages, or see the inscriptions jotted on the title page (sometimes the author's own signature) and the notes scribbled in the margins.
And you never have to worry about power outages.
Abe Lincoln reading in "An Evening in a Log Hut" by Eastman Johnson... without electricity!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Releasing the Second Book in a Series

Some people have compared writing a book and having it published to giving birth to a child. To a certain extent, that may be true: a lot of sleepless nights, overeating, and pain (even some screaming) is involved, with the end result being a new creation is brought into existence.

However, while no one would dispute that having one child makes one a parent, for some reason, some writers (raising hand) don't feel like a "real" author after their first book is released.  Which seems absurd, on the face of it:  if one writes a book, one has authored a book and, published or not, one is an author.  Some friends have told me that they really didn't feel like a parent during the pregnancy; it wasn't until they actually held their child in their arms that the reality of it hit them.  I have to say that I had a similar sentiment the first time I held a print copy of "End of the Road".  But did I feel like a "real" author?

I'll tell you what I did feel: like I was living in one of my daydreams. The ones that writers spin in their heads during their day-to-day tasks (but not the daydream that includes me standing in a long gown saying "I'd like to thank the Academy....")  The reality of it--the fact that I was a published author--somehow didn't feel "real" yet.  And slowly this gave way to a "surreal" feeling.  Obviously my book wasn't topping the NY Times bestseller list (or even the local paper's non-existent bestseller list) and I began to wonder if my writing career, like Harvey, could only be seen by me. This could be for several reasons, but the one that seems most prevalent is "What if they find out I'm not a real author???"

It's crazy, but sometimes, after "End of the Road" was published, I wondered if I was going to wake up and find myself doing the only writing that I'll ever get paid for:  with icing, on a cake, with the customer telling me what to write.  Or that my publisher might suddenly take a good, hard look at my book and think, "Oh, my gosh, we published the wrong book!"  Or that I would have a reviewer post a -5 star review with merciless feedback ("Keep all writing implements away from this person... for the sake of innocent words and readers alike!")

Well, none of that happened (thank you, Lord) and when my publisher asked for the manuscript for the second book in the series, "No Lifeguard on Duty", along with my marketing plan, cover art, blurbs, etc. I knew that it was real.  I really am an author.  Not a NY Times bestselling author, not an author who's going to be making Oscar acceptance speeches (well, not yet, anyway!), but an author whose book was published, an author whose second book was eagerly anticipated by several readers (bless you all!), and an author who had a second chance to live a once-in-a-lifetime dream.

This is what a dream-come-true looks like!
For this, I have my publisher, my friends, my family, and the good Lord to thank.

Monday, April 7, 2014

My Name is Amy and I'm Addicted to Books...

It's said that the first step is admitting you have a problem. 

The problem is, I don't see addiction to books as a problem.

A couple weeks ago, in the midst of text block revisions and trying to work on the rough draft of the third book in the Black Horse Campground series, I suddenly realized that I had a lot of books that I hadn't read yet, not including about three that I promised to read and review.  I finished the corrections and sent them off and knew it would be a few days before I got them back to review... it was the perfect excuse to drop the pen (so to speak) and fling myself down on the couch and lose myself in stories that were written by someone else. I got the next round of text block back just as I was finishing "The Pawnbroker" by David and Aimee Thurlo and told myself that it was time to quit fooling around and get to work.

Then I received a package from three books I had pre-ordered and forgotten about.  And Mary Higgins Clark's new novel was released. My favorite author.

I promised myself I'd only read one chapter, AFTER I finished the text block corrections.  Or most of them.  Half of them.  Okay, I'd do them ALL after I read just one chapter. Or ten.

Deadlines are marvelous ways to get a writer's head out of someone else's book and back into their own.

Still, I have a lot of books I can't wait to read.  They sit on my desk, like the little next-door-neighbor kid who hangs around on the front porch while you're inside having dinner with your family.  Just waiting.

As I said last week, reading is a writer's first writing teacher.  I'd like to claim that the books I'm reading are all simply to improve my own writing, but the truth is, I read because I love to read.  I could live without TV or movies, music (maybe... my "70s Lite Rock" station on Pandora is my writing soundtrack), but going for a day without reading leaves me feeling like I haven't eaten and my refrigerator is empty. I know I'm not starving, but it sure feels like it.

And then I receive an e-mail from a dormant credit card account stating that I had $138.00 worth of points I could use at  Suddenly the 'fridge and the pantry are bursting at the seams and eight more books sit on my desk (plus six more on my Kindle... don't judge!) and I prepare to indulge in several hours of literary delight... after I make my word counts for the day.  Or half of them.  Hey, I can handle it.  I can quit anytime I want to....
So many books... so little time....

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Writing 101--Reading

Almost every published writer gets asked one particular question: How did you become a writer?

The answer may vary from writer to writer, but almost every one will say that he or she started out as a reader.

Long before I became a writer, I was a reader, and I believe I will be a reader long after I cease to be a writer (unless, of course, I drop dead at my desk in the middle of an exciting scene, but let's not get too specific here!)  Reading stories, whether fact or fiction, inspired me to want to write my own stories.  And once I decided to become a writer, I read even more.

I must have spent a small fortune on "How to write" books, some written by popular authors (including Janet Evanovich) and some by writers who seem to only have "How To" books as their credentials.  And, much to my embarrassment NOW, I actually followed a lot of the advice given in those books! Like not using sentence fragments (as you can see, I finally came to my senses on that one!) Or not using contractions (the only time I do not, er, don't use contractions is during November when I'm trying to boost my word count on my NaNoWriMo project!) Or only writing what I know (murder mystery writer here!)

I have also taken many writing classes which turned out to be merely extended lectures (sixteen weeks long) on how the INSTRUCTOR writes. The grading curve on those classes had a lot to do on how well we parroted the instructor's advice and sacrificed originality.

I wasted a lot of time and money on books and classes that were supposedly the key to becoming a writer.  It took a long time for me to realize that I only really needed one class--basic English grammar--and lots of books.  But not necessarily the kind that tell me how to write.

The books that taught me most about the art of writing are the ones that I enjoy reading. I loved reading mysteries and what better place to learn how to write one than by reading and studying how my favorite writers wrote the stories that I loved? In this instance, the "how to" books were valuable in that they explained how the author brought their characters to life, used dialogue and exposition to move the story along, and used description as a tool for setting the scene, not as a means to an end.  The books then showed me how it was done. You may look at a recipe for a complicated dish and manage to pull it off, but it's so much easier when you can see someone go step by step through the process.

Obviously, it's not an easy thing to learn. One of the best tools for learning how to write is, again, reading, but reading out loud.  Read a passage written by one of your favorite authors, then read your own work. No matter how many times I visually read my work, my eyes know what I'm supposed to have written and "see" it correctly. It's amazing how any awkward phrasing and rough pacing in your writing becomes evident when read out loud... and even more so when you have someone else read it out loud (this is where having a trusted first reader is indispensable!)

And here is another thing... anyone who reads extensively has no business making mistakes in spelling and punctuation.  There, I've said it!  After all, if you're reading a professionally written and published book, any spelling and punctuation mistakes should be minimal, if they exist at all.  Your favorite books should have the proper use of their, they're, and there and the proper placing of commas within quotation marks and--this is my biggest one--the proper use of apostrophes (it's true; just because a word ends in "s" doesn't mean it needs an apostrophe before that "s"!) If you read a lot, you should be familiar with the way certain words are spelled. If you consult any book at all in the course of your writing time, it should be a really good dictionary. Not the pocket kind. I mean the desktop kind that would cause serious injury if you ever dropped it on your foot.  All the spelling, grammar, and language usage rules that you should have learned in school are in that book.  Don't be afraid to use it!

In the end, what it boils down to is the sage wisdom I've received from many mentors and heard from many admired writers: write a book you want to read.

It all comes back to reading.